When Edgar Maddison Welch stepped into the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria Sunday armed with an AR-15, he told police he was there to rescue children from a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta. Fortunately, when he found no such children, Welch surrendered to the police without shooting anything but a locked door, and no one was injured. But that particular fake-news conspiracy theory, which began on 4chan shortly before the election, was widely promoted by Alex Jones, the controversial radio host and founder of Infowars, his conspiratorial website that often publishes fake news. Jones and Infowars also heavily promoted the candidacy of President-elect Donald Trump, who has appeared on Jones's internet TV show and promoted some of his site's content. At the end of an interview with Jones in 2015, Trump told him, "Your reputation is amazing. I will not let you down."
Welch was also a fan: He "liked" both Jones and Infowars on his Facebook page, and he told the New York Times after he was arrested that he also listened to Jones' radio show. "He's a bit eccentric," Welch said. "He touches on some issues that are viable but goes off the deep end on some things." He also told the Times that the 9/11 terror attacks called for further investigation—a common refrain from Jones. And while Welch joins more than 2 million people who "like" Jones and Infowars, he also is part of a much smaller number of Jones' fans who have committed acts of violence in the pursuit of a kooky political theory given currency by Jones. Among other things, Jones believes the US government was behind the 9/11 terror attacks. He has called the mass shooting of children at Sandy Hook elementary school "a giant hoax"; believes the government has set up hundreds of FEMA concentration camps and is deploying juice boxes to "encourage homosexuality with chemicals so that people don't have children." A number of high-profile shooters are known to have had a fondness for Jones' work and some of his favorite conspiracy theories. At least three were active commenters on Infowars. That's not to say Jones caused the violence or even encouraged it. (He did not respond to requests for comment.) But the shooters do appear to share similar tastes in political news and opinions.
Here are some of them:
Richard Poplawski: In 2009, the ex-Marine killed three Pittsburg police officers who responded to a call about a domestic dispute with his mother. He had baited the police, meeting them wearing a bulletproof vest and carrying an AK-47. He opened fire as soon as he opened the door to the officers. In the months leading up to the attack, Poplawski had ranted online about the growing police state and the coming collapse of the economy. Before the shooting, he also promised to ramp up his activism and talked of revolutionaries. He claimed to have cased post-Super Bowl parties after the Pittsburgh Steelers won, to "survey police behavior in an unrestful environment." Poplawski was a believer of conspiracy theories, especially those involving FEMA camps, and a reader of anti-Semitic websites such as Stormfront. But he also frequented Infowars, where he was a commenter. In a research report on Poplawski, the Anti-Defamation League wrote:
One of Poplawski's favorite places for such conspiracy theories was the Web site of the right-wing conspiracy radio talk show host Alex Jones. Poplawski visited the site, Infowars, frequently, shared links to it with others, and sometimes even posted to it. One of his frustrations with the site, though, was that it didn't focus enough on the nefarious roles played by Jews in all these conspiracies. "For being such huge players in the endgame," he observed in a March 29, 2009 posting to Infowars, "too many 'infowarriors' are surprisingly unfamiliar with the Zionists." Another time he was more hopeful, noting that "racial awareness is on the rise among the young white population."
Jones took issue with the ADL report and news stories linking him to Poplawski. He has said Poplawski came to his site to comment specifically because he disagreed with Jones, and he denied having any responsibility for the shooting. He told the Pittsburgh Post Gazette that "If anybody should be blamed for this it’s the Marines—they’re the ones who trained him to kill." Poplawski is now on death row awaiting execution.
Oscar Ortega: In 2011, the Idaho Falls man traveled to Washington, apparently in the hopes of assassinating President Barack Obama, whom he believed was the anti-Christ. He shot a semi-automatic weapon at the White House from the window of his car and was arrested. In trying to explain Ortega's behavior, a friend told the New York Times that Ortega had watched The Obama Deception: The Mask Comes Off, a film Jones wrote and produced. It claims Obama is helping create a "New World Order" and turning the US into Nazi Germany, using FEMA camps, among other tools. He pleaded guilty to terrorism and weapons charges and was sentenced to 25 years in prison. Infowars suggested that the media was simply trying to "link anti-government opinion" with the shooting in order to chill political free speech.
Byron Williams: After being stopped for speeding in 2010, this former bank robber engaged in a 12-minute shootout with police on the Oakland freeway in California. Two officers were injured but no one was killed. Williams claimed he was on his way to start a right-wing revolution by killing people at the ACLU and the liberal Tides Foundation in San Francisco. In an interview with Media Matters after the shootout, he cited Jones as an influence on his political thinking. In 2014, as a repeat offender, Williams was sentenced to more than 400 years in prison for premeditated attempted murder of a police officer and weapons charges. Jones pushed back on stories linking him to Williams, telling Media Matters, "This goes to a classic lie that has been retreaded that this fellow follows Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. This is a classic guilt by association tactic," Jones said. "It is just more of an attempt to imply that anyone who criticizes corruption is contributing to an atmosphere that will cause another Oklahoma City bombing."
Tamerlan Tsarnaev: Along with his brother Dzhokhar, the Chechen immigrant orchestrated the Boston marathon bombings in 2013, setting off pressure cooker bombs that killed three people and injured more than 260 others. They also killed an MIT police officer and a Boston cop, who died of his injuries a year after the shooting took place. Tsarnaev was known to read a host of extremist materials, including jihadi websites and an English-language publication put out by Al Qaeda's affiliate in Yemen. But he was also hostile to the American government and interested in conspiracy theories. One of his relatives told the Associated Press that before the bombings, he "took an interest" in Infowars. (Jones has said the Boston marathon bombing was a plot hatched by the FBI.) Tsarnaev was killed during the post-bombing manhunt after his brother Dzhokhar drove over him in an SUV while trying to escape the police.
Jerad and Amanda Miller: The married couple went on a 2014 shooting spree in Las Vegas that started with an ambush of two police officers in an attempt to start an anti-government revolution; they were kicked out of the one they thought was starting at Cliven Bundy's ranch during anti-government protests there. Jerad Miller said the Bundys booted them off the ranch because he was a felon illegally carrying a gun, but Ammon Bundy said they were asked to leave because they were "too radical." The spree left five people dead, including the shooters. Both Jerad and Amanda were regular commenters on Infowars, where Jerad once speculated about when it would be appropriate to kill police officers. Jerad and Amanda embraced the site's conspiracy theories about government mind-control, "chemtrails" and the notion that the US government was behind the 9/11 attacks. As he did after the Comet Ping Pong incident, Jones dismissed the Las Vegas killings as a "false flag" operation, this one set up by the Obama administration to blame the shootings on right-wing extremists.
Jared Loughner: In 2011, the mentally disturbed young man killed six people, including a federal judge and a nine-year-old girl. He shot and injured 13 others, seriously wounding Rep. Gabby Giffords, his original target, who'd been speaking at a Tucson event. Loughner had espoused anti-government views about the New World Order and conspiracy theories about the US government being responsible for the 9/11 attacks, echoing Jones. After the shooting, one of Loughner's friend's told Good Morning America that Zeitgeist, a trio of conspiracy films about the international monetary system that borrowed heavily from Jones' work, had "a profound impact on Jared Loughner's mindset and how he views the world that he lives in." Loughner was also apparently influenced in his thinking about the government by the Loose Change, a cult classic among people who believe 9/11 was an inside job. Jones was its executive producer. Loughner is now serving life in prison.